Are Senior Discounts Demeaning?

12/01/2011 02:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Several years before my husband and I married, I brought him to Leisure World to meet my two 80-something aunties and take them to lunch. Both women were financially comfortable, made so by widowhood as well as their own ahead-of-their-time careers as a lawyer and a business owner. Both had lived through good times and hard times and both knew the value of a nickel.

The restaurant they picked was the Sizzler, an inexpensive chain eatery with a generous salad bar and a dessert included in the price of your meal.

They both ordered the grilled salmon lunch plate for $7.49, a price that became permanently etched in my memory at the point when they demanded their 10 percent -- 75-cent -- senior citizen discount.

My future husband totally understood my aunties' thriftiness.

"They're senior citizens," he said, "they deserve the 10 percent off."

It's something I've grappled with ever since. Why should two wealthy women get a discount in a restaurant just because of their age? I understand the logic of a restaurant offering a children's menu, where kids pay less for smaller portions. That makes sense; kids don't eat as much and their parents shouldn't be charged for excessive amounts of food.

But my aunties not only filled up on the salad bar and had the waitress box up their entire entrees as soon as the plates hit the table, they took home the bread on the table ("They are just going to throw it out," said one auntie) and the other one stopped by the salad bar on her way out to add some greens to her box ("I like to eat salad at dinner," said auntie #2).

By the way, my husband's understanding didn't stop him from selling his stock in Sizzler the next day. Any company that offered a discount to seniors and had stores next to retirement villages wasn't going to stay in business, he concluded. Sizzler subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996 and had closed 140 of 215 restaurants by the time it exited bankruptcy a year later. I'm thinking those 140 restaurants were the ones near the retirement villages.

Sizzler, of course, isn't the only restaurant that offers a discount to seniors. A call to the National Restaurant Association confirmed it's a common practice, but yielded no knowledge about how it started. Perhaps those in the know were all off not having sex with Herman Cain.

The reality is, giving seniors a discount is a time-honored tradition in this country, and one they've come to expect. On some level, it shows that we as a society care and value their contributions and respect them for their age. But more often than not, it's a blatant appeal for their business -- which gets me wondering about the age-based part.

When I turned 50, I began getting solicitations to join AARP. One of the lures was a host of discounts that AARP provides to its members. I get it. AARP offers discounts to increase its membership. Ditto for AAA. But why should a senior citizen be given a lower price for the same meal or the same movie that someone younger is eating or viewing?

I even understand offering discounts for early-bird movies and early-bird dinners. If people want to leave the beautiful sunshine of the mid-day to sit in a darkened movie theater or eat dinner at 4 p.m., that's their choice. Those theater seats and restaurant tables would otherwise remain empty, so if offering a discount to fill them generates some income during off-hours, go for it. But in those cases, the discount is being offered to everyone, not just those who reach an arbitrary age.

I'm not saying that seniors aren't entitled to something, including respect from society. But this isn't how to package it. To show respect, how about a national pension plan that doesn't threaten to go belly-up or a health care system that allows seniors to actually get the medical care they need affordably? Medicare doesn't pay for hearing aids, something millions of seniors could probably use more than 75-cents off their lunch.

By singling out seniors and "rewarding" them with small-change discounts, are we as a society absolving ourselves of the larger obligation to provide more meaningful help? Sure feels that way to me.

Here's a crazy idea: Maybe businesses should lower their prices for everyone, which could stimulate consumer spending, save the economy and allow the government to fund the programs that seniors really need.

In the meantime, I'll continue to shop Banana Republic on Tuesdays, which is when they give a discount to those over 60.